Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring, by Richard Preston

Richard Preston, author of Hot Zone, is most interested in The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring (Random House, 2007) in the character and background of young men who become obsessed with the huge California redwoods, especially with climbing them. He focuses especially on three individuals, Steve Sillett, who becomes a botanist who studies the redwoods; Michael Taylor, afraid of heights but obsessed with identifying the tallest redwoods in the world—they grow up to 380 feet tall; and Marie Antoine, who compensates for childhood loneliness following her mother’s death by various hazardous activities, among them tree climbing. She eventually marries Sillett.

There is a subculture devoted to tree climbing, and Preston describes it along with the technology, techniques, and attractions of climbing the huge redwoods. Especially harrowing is his account of how a group of climbers sleep one night hundreds of feet above the ground in an especially tall and ancient redwood that leans at a precipitous angle out over the rest of the forest. A storm front comes through, and the tree sways and shudders wildly in the wind. The climbers can hear the tree groaning as it bends, but darkness and the wind make it too dangerous for them to descend to safety. They wait out the storm. A few weeks later the tree falls to the ground.

Although the redwoods originally covered large expanses of land near the California Pacific coast, logging and development have taken their toll, and now the trees remain in only a few areas, some of them protected as national and state parklands, others still vulnerable. They represent one of the largest and most remarkable life forms in the world, yet they’re threatened with extinction.

In the huge upper structures of the redwoods, which can live thousands of years, soil accumulates in the nooks and crannies of the branches and trunk stems. Other plants and animals take up residence there, and the redwoods therefore sustain their own unique biological environment.

Although the discussions in this book about the biological and environmental significance of the redwoods are fascinating, its greatest interest lies in the redwood climbers themselves. Disaffected in certain ways from their families and the greater human world, they find solace and satisfaction clambering above the ground in the redwood branches and trunk stems.

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